The air has long since been cleared between Pau Gasol and Mike D'Antoni, and that's saying something considering they work in a city where smog is as much a part of the landscape as the Los Angeles Lakers flags that still fly from passing cars. But even without Kobe Bryant here at the outset, the two most important men in the Lakers' new mission swear the regular season starts with an outlook as clear and bright as one of those rare days when you can see from Staples Center to the Hollywood Hills where departed big man Dwight Howard once resided. Gone are the days of placating the big man with the hopes that he'd re-sign, running the offense through him as a political ploy while the most skilled post player on the planet — yes, that's Gasol — was mostly marginalized and pushed to the perimeter. And make no mistake, D'Antoni admits, it was nothing short of a season-long recruiting effort that made most basketball purists cringe, including him. "It was very uncomfortable," D'Antoni, the Lakers coach, said about the Howard-Gasol dynamic last season. "I knew I was messing on (Gasol) last year. That's not fair to him. But that was the situation we were in. How do we make the best of it? I was just trying to make the best of it. But no, it wasn't fair to him. "I think it was all (politics). It was all that. We wouldn't do that (normally). If nobody had names on their jerseys, and we were just playing? You go through Pau. There's not a question. No question." It's certainly not a question anymore. With the Lakers opening Tuesday night (10:30 ET, TNT) against the Los Angeles Clippers and hoping to shock the masses by sneaking into the playoffs six months from now, Gasol finally has his long-overdue chance to regain his rightful place in the league's lexicon. He is a four-time All-Star and champion who was too soon forgotten, the 33-year-old free agent-to-be who had his ailing knees fixed during the summer and now wants to round out his remarkably accomplished career with a few more seasons of, as D'Antoni puts it, "devastating" play. The Lakers won't have Bryant for the foreseeable future as he continues to recover from his April Achilles tendon tear and are already dealing with another round of health setbacks from point guard Steve Nash. In the here and now, they likely will go as far as Gasol can carry them. And that, as he well knows, means he must play like the Gasol of old rather than the old Gasol. "I definitely believe I can do it," Gasol told USA TODAY Sports this week. "I know it. I bounced back really well. The procedure went well, my tendons are a lot healthier now than they were before. I have a lot more healthy tissue that regenerated well. I worked hard during the summer to be in the position that I'm in today, and I look forward to just to going out there and doing what I know best." Through all these years of trade rumors and the imperfect circumstances that surrounded him, the always-enlightened Spaniard used his worldly perspective to help control his own frustration. As he is so quick to point out, he is — in spite of the near-constant drama in Laker Land — a tremendously wealthy basketball player who is well aware that these are first-world problems of the highest order. Real struggle can be found in the pages of the latest book he's reading, the World War II stories told in Ken Follett's Winter of the World. True injustice was there for him to see in Iraq during the summer, when the ambassador of UNICEF's Spanish Committee visited with many Syrian refugees who had to flee their homeland because of war. But in this basketball world in which he works, the way in which he has been used in recent years was nothing short of a hoops crime. The irony here is Gasol wasn't healthy enough last season to make the sort of mark he plans on making this time around. He averaged a career-low 13.7 points in a career-low 49 games, all while dealing with knee tendinitis, a torn plantar fascia in his right foot and a late-season concussion that jarred his already-discombobulated head. The summer brought with it a key question: Would he train like normal and hope the declining state of his knees miraculously improved or have a nascent medical procedure that could help him become basketball's best ballerina again? He opted for the latter, and — for now, anyway —the plan is working to perfection. The May 9 "FAST technique" procedure may have been minimally invasive, but it left him in crutches and — because of its newness in the medical community — unsure whether it would work. Stem cells were taken from his pelvis and injected into his knees to replace the damaged tissue that had been removed. Ultrasound wavelengths were aimed at his tendons in order to debride the damage in there too. Gasol said the procedure had only been performed 20 times when he decided to become the 21st, but it was far more attractive than the alternative. "I had nothing to lose really, because as painful as (the knees were) feeling at the time and through last year, I just needed to do something," Gasol said. "I just couldn't continue otherwise. I would've gone down. "You're much more limited. You can't explode. You can't really jump. You can't really bend as much. You can't move as quickly and explosively. You've just got to adjust and with my skills and my IQ, I could still be productive, but not the go-to guy probably."
Pau Gasol, Mike D'Antoni clear up 'uncomfortable' air
USA Today | Oct 29